Accuser Cites Big Money in Page's Housing Deal
The attorney for the Orlando commissioner, charged with 2 felonies, says the full story has not been told.

By Mark Schlueb | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted March 3, 2006

Orlando Commissioner Ernest Page's nonprofit corporation stood to earn at least $600,000 -- and possibly more than $1 million -- from the housing deal that led to his arrest, according to those involved in the project.

Orlando Criminal Defense Attorney Mark NeJameThe condo-conversion project would have been the biggest venture in the 11-year history of Page's Southwest United Communities.

"There was going to be some pretty significant financial gain for the nonprofit," said Al Pina, the Tampa activist who at one time planned to partner with Page's group.

Page was arrested Wednesday on two felony counts of bribery and exerting improper influence relating to the project. Prosecutors would not comment at length about the case, but charging documents filed Wednesday indicate Page improperly sought to benefit for Southwest United Communities, the corporation he founded and runs.

Though both laws cited by prosecutors come under the "bribery" heading, no one has alleged that Page solicited a personal payoff. The State Attorney's Office would not elaborate on the nature of the bribery charge, and Page's attorney said it's unclear to him as well.

The "benefit" could simply be his nonprofit corporation's inclusion in the deal.

Southwest United Communities has been interested in the 826 rundown apartments in 11 complexes around Orange Center Boulevard for at least two years. Page discussed the project with Pina, who heads a similar community-development organization in Tampa.

Plans called for buying the apartments for $27 million and converting them to below-market condos, with some set aside for single mothers. But Pina, who said he decided Page's role as a city commissioner presented a conflict of interest, decided to pursue the deal without Page or his nonprofit group.

Page sent Pina angry phone and e-mail messages, threatening to kill the project. Though he identified himself as "Mayor Page" and warned Pina that the city would not support the project, Page later said he was speaking as head of Southwest United Communities.

"We don't want to get into the specifics of the case, but in reading the charging document, it is unlike any I've seen before," Page's attorney Mark NeJame, said Thursday. "We're compiling a lot of information to tell the full story, which we don't feel has come close to being told."

According to financial records reviewed by the Orlando Sentinel, the condo-conversion project would have produced an estimated profit of $22 million. Most of that money would have gone to private investors and the project's developers, but a smaller percentage would have gone to the nonprofit group that partnered on the deal.

Under the plan, Southwest United Communities would have earned between $600,000 and about $1.2 million, according to both Pina and another person involved in the deal who asked that his name not be used because he does business with the city.

It's unclear whether that would have meant a higher salary for Page, the group's CEO. In its tax returns, the nonprofit reported paying Page about $23,000 in 2003, and nothing in 2004. On Wednesday, State Attorney Lawson Lamar said his investigation showed that Page was paid "in excess of $65,000" in 2005.

"There was money to be made, but I don't think money was the issue with Ernest. It was about clout and control," said the other participant in the deal.

Page, who was suspended from office, remained out of sight Thursday. At City Hall, a steady stream of would-be candidates in the April 11 special election to fill his District 6 seat stopped by for information about the race.

At least eight people have shown interest, including 2004 candidates Lawanna Gelzer and Marcus Robinson, retired teacher Mary Maxwell, teacher Vicki Elaine-Felder and former mayoral candidate Sam Ings.

Mable Butler, a former City Council and County Commission member, is reportedly considering running. And several black leaders, including Orlando Commissioner Daisy Lynum and County Commissioner Homer Hartage, said they plan to support Bakari Burns, CEO of the Health Care Center for the Homeless.

Source: Orlando Sentinel